WHEN BENNY'S HOME of the Porno Stars closed down this month, another piece of Washington's history was sacrificed -- and it is history that should not be allowed to pass unmourned.
The Benny's I first knew in 1952 was part of a Washington that has now vanished. That Washington displayed the trappings and traditions of a small Southern city more than those of a world capital. Its customs were overtly segregationist; but it was also a neighborly, small-scale place with little resemblance to the self-important megalopolis of today that turns whole neighborhoods into office complexes with names like Franklin Square.
In fact, if you walk along the 800 block of 14th Street NW these days, ignoring the sex joints that remain, and listen carefully, you can still almost imagine that you hear the strains of "Won't you come along with me/ Down the Mississippi . . . ." and other jazz classics that spilled out the front door of Benny's long before unshaven hawkers beckoned passers-by to "come in and see the girls."
For the "Home of the Porno Stars" sobriquet is of relatively recent vintage. For decades, Benny's was known as the Rebel Room -- it still is listed in the phone book that way -- and I misspent many an enjoyable night there in the summer of 1952, when that strip of 14th Street from G to L streets was to a teen-aged college student from West Virginia what Wisconsin and M in Georgetown is today.
Benny's was the home of Dixieland jazz, which attracted an appreciative, if raucous crowd. Across the street at the Casino Royal (now a sex mini-conglomerate), and the long- gone Blue Mirror, the floor shows featured major stars of the day. The strip joints, such as they were, were located on 9th Street, near the Gayety burlesque.
I was among several hundred college students who had been lured to the nation's capital by announcements -- posted on campus bulletin boards across the country -- that the Hot Shoppes restaurants were seeking girls to work as waitresses and boys to work outside as "car hops" at their drive-in restaurants.
None of the dozen of us who were assigned to work at the uptown Hot Shoppes at Connecticut Avenue and Yuma Street NW had ever been to Washington before. Despite dissimilar backgrounds -- Lawrence Moore and I attended West Virginia Institute of Technology, the others were sophisticated preppies from Duke and Chapel Hill and Pomona-Claremont -- we quickly became friends. During our hours and days off, we took classes at George Washington University and explored the city's sights -- museums and monuments by day, restaurants and bars by night.
Benny's became one of our regular haunts. The Casino Royal had both a cover and a minimum, putting it out of range of waiters who earned $2.25 a day plus tips (averaging a quarter a carload). So was the Lotus a block away at 711 14th, another club -- the city had real night clubs then -- that featured Chinese-American food and name entertainment.
"Those were the great days," recalled attorney Leon Zieger recently. He bought the Casino Royal in the 1954 "to handle the overflow" from his Blue Mirror, "the Showplace of Stars" two doors away. Among the stars Zieger booked into his emporia were Nat "King" Cole, the Mills Brothers, Peggy Lee, the Four Freshmen and Ella Fitzgerald. "Ella played us seven times," Zieger said.
"That was Broadway," Zieger said of that strip of 14th Street. A young comic, Don Rickles, "used to beg me to take him out to breakfast" at the White Tower on the corner. And there was the night that Jayne Mansfield got into a fight -- "hair pulling and all" -- with Mae West over muscleman Mickey Hagerty, Jayne's boyfriend who was in Mae's act.
Zieger, who sold out "the year Martin Luther King was killed," remembers the late Benny Mendelson, Benny's owner and namesake, as "a real character." Mendelson was from Georgia "and had this odd accent -- a Southern Jewish drawl," Zieger said.
He changed the name of his place from Benny's Tavern to Benny's Rebel Room in a tribute to both his heritage and the music that was played there. In 1958, according to a yellowy newspaper clipping, he proposed erecting a huge neon Confederate flag atop the two-story building, but backed down after the Alcoholic Beverage Control board questioned the propriety of using the traditional Southern symbol. "I won't fight city hall," Mendelson said.
On another occasion, recalls Judy Young, who has worked behind bars on the block for 28 years, Mendelson told the board, "I came across 14th Street with a mule and wagon, and I'm going back to Georgia in a Cadillac."
An instant history lesson in how the neighborhood has changed is offered by James Bakalis, who has operated the Gold Rush -- two doors from Benny's -- since 1962, when he took over the building from Zirkin furriers. Bakalis' club switched from jazz and top night-club acts to rock-and-roll bands to "exotics" to explicit, sex-oriented performances. Bakalis contends that night-club operators were "forced into it" because of the change of clientele that occurred after the 1968 riots.
"We still get lobbyists with out-of-town businessmen on week nights, and service men on weekends," Bakalis said, but a lot of his former customers "are leery of coming in from the suburbs. We do get some riffraff these days."
The Hot Shoppes to which our group was assigned in that summer of '52, has also given way to a bigger, presumably more profitable use -- the operations division of the National Bank of Washington across from WJLA-TV. But in its glory, although the restaurant had a spacious dining room, about half of the customers chose to eat in their cars, from metal trays that attached to the rolled down windows. It was this trade that we car-hops vied for.
We stood halfway out into the street watching for drivers of northbound cars to put out their hands to signal for a left turn (few cars had directional lights) and called "I've got the blue Buick," or whatever.
There were two things the Marriotts didn't serve inside their restaurants in those days -- booze and blacks -- although they later discovered there was money in both and changed the policy.
(The Marriotts were not alone in their policies in what was then an almost totally segregated city. About the only references to blacks that appeared in the pages of The Washington Post that summer were in articles concerning fighting men killed or missing in Korea, and in classified ads specifying whether jobs or housing were for coloreds).
The Marriotts, whose burgeoning empire was then pretty much limited to the Hot Shoppes, were a paternalistic outfit: they convinced anxious parents that their darlings would be safe in Washington because the Mormon-owned restaurant chain would provide its summer workers with a list of clean, safe, reasonably priced places to stay.
Lawrence Moore and I ended up in a house at 16th and U Streets NW, sharing a third-story room that had been carved into the eaves. To beat the heat, we often took a blanket across the street to Meridian Hill Park (now also known as Malcolm X Park). After splashing in the lovely, cascading fountains, we slept on the grass, near the statue of Joan of Arc on a horse.
A District law prohibited sleeping in a public place between sunrise and sunset, (the National Park Service now prohibits anyone from even being in the park after 9 p.m.), so at dawn, a police officer who was from down home in Oak Hill, W. Va., gently tapped us on our heels and we returned to our still-stuffy room.
The park was and is located between the Roosevelt Hotel and the Meridian Hill House. The latter, now a Howard University dormitory, was an apartment hotel for young women. Unfortunately, its rooms had window air conditioners, (the same tiny units still dot the building) so its tenants seldom fulfilled our fantasies and retreated to the park. One morning, however, we were stunned jealous by the sight of a couple arising from a blanket and going separate ways, she toward the Meridian Hill.
Our room was just at the edge of the black entertainment district on U Street, which was the locale of three movie theaters and a number of small clubs.
The Club Bengasi, 1426 U, attracted some of the best black performers. An attendant at the Jarvis Funeral Home, asked the other day if he recalled the Bengasi, went outside, pointed across the street to the new city government building going up at 14th and U, and said, "See that hole in the ground? That was the Bengasi."
A highlight of my summer was seeing pianist Erroll Garner at the Bengasi. A man at the door directed me to sit at the bar, sip my beer quietly and not walk around the room. I was the only white in the room, but I attracted no more than a couple of understanding smiles from fellow jazz buffs.
But if you were young and white, downtown, especially the area bounded by
14th, I and 13th Streets and Pennsylvania Avenue, was where the action was. Sidewalk strollers were bombarded with a cacophony of sounds -- jazz, Dixieland, country-and-western -- and flashing neon lights advertising floor shows, stage shows and movies.
Several theaters along F and G Streets featured stage shows (Rudy Vallee played the Capitol), and the artsy Trans-Lux, Plaza and Little theaters served coffee and tea in the lobby between shows. Among the film hits: "She's Working Her Way Through College" starring Virginia Mayo and Ronald Reagan, and "The Winning Team," of which Post reviewer Orval Hopkins wrote that the casting of Ronald Reagan as Grover Cleveland Alexander was "a thundering error . . . As a pitcher he's . . . a bum. The fellow simply never learned to throw."
Occasionally we strayed beyond downtown. It was worth getting lost in Northeast to see Divena do her "aquatease" in a giant fishbowl at the Club Kavakos (8th and H NE); or to take the exciting 15-cent trolley ride over rickety trestles to Glen Echo amusement park, where Jimmy Dorsey and other big bands played the ballroom. If anyone went to Georgetown for fun, it escaped us.
But it was to downtown that we returned, to see Ella at the Blue Mirror; to listen to a trio with a drummer named Don at the Neptune Room, and occasionally look in on Rand's Port Said on I, the Hayloft on H, The 823, a below-street-level German restaurant at that address on 15th Street, which is now the Peking restaurant, and to Benny's.
I had justified the summer adventure to my parents by promising to make up a failing French grade by taking it over again at GW. But the night before the final exam, I prepared by marching with the saints at Benny's. And that's how Benny's history and my personal one became intertwined in a way my family would never let me forget.
I slept through the test.